The Lackawanna train station is clearly one of the most iconic historic landmarks in Montclair. The development application now before the township comes down to demolishing the major section of this historic site for an asphalt parking lot. The public good, the justification for the demolition, is to provide additional parking and shopping cart corals to serve the existing, but still unleased supermarket space.
A supermarket use is not the developer’s choice. The Township is dictating this use to the developer. This application has already been judged a win-win with just some rearranging of the deck chairs remaining. A supermarket tenant continues to elude the developer and is not guaranteed. I am not aware of a Plan B for other uses that can coexist with the train station as it is.
Our Council, Planning Board, Zoning Board, Historic Preservation Commission, and architectural consultants support the demolition. The historic Cloverhill Neighborhood Association, the SaveMontclair advocacy group, the Business Improvement District’s business owners, and many residents of the 4th Ward, the direct beneficiaries of this public good, all support the demolition. Maybe the Pig & Prince owners include themselves, too. It seems immaterial to all that the defined public good here is transient while the harm is permanent.
This is the state of our public policy on historic preservation. It is an ‘after the fact’, superficial accommodation to allow us to retain the appearance of strong policy.
Our Historic Preservation Commission has acquiesced to political pressure and has replaced their precept of preservation non-maleficence with economic beneficence. They have moved away from preservationist activism to the role of a governmental “design police”. The Commission’s base constituency who call for retaining Montclair’s character have found the reality of preservation to be an encumbrance to this development. The HPC has lowered their standards to the point where they risk their reason for being.
Over five decades we have tried to alternately preserve and demolish the train station section by section. We have employed every level of regulatory protection to defend the site from the ongoing and increasing market pressures and political forces for development.
The site, suffering from neglect, was essentially intact when Montclair obtained the first protections: State and Federal historic designations in 1972-73. While these nominations acknowledged the site had no historic significance beyond the local level, they were the only available regulatory options at the time to provide a measure of protection. Yet, within a decade, Montclair used the Urban Renewal law to override these protections and direct the first round of demolition to construct a suburban strip mall.
Over the next three decades, Montclair tried to rectify the short-sightedness of that Urban Renewal project. It implemented a historic preservation ordinance, created the Historic Preservation Commission, and added an additional layer of protection for the train station with a local landmark designation in 2003. Memories fade, our demographics changed, and new values came with it.
Today, 15 years later, another round of demolition offers only extrinsic historic accommodations in exchange. A few original elements will be relocated. Many of the historic remnants will be repurposed into new structures and adornments around the parking lot’s periphery. The result will be the original train station becoming increasingly indistinguishable and require erecting historical signage to make sense of what is left. We are demolishing a major part of the station to expand a deleterious land use our Master Plan is against. The Plan states we will tolerate large, existing surface parking lots but clearly not permit their enlargement.
The foundation for this situation was laid over recent years. Part of that foundation that preservationists missed was the 2014 Montclair Center Study approved by the Planning Board and the Township Council. The study found the train station lot was in need of redevelopment because of the high incidence of crime. The criterion cited was the lot “being overcrowded, having a faulty arrangement or design, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, excessive land coverage, deleterious land use or obsolete layout, or any combination of these or other factors, detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community.” But, the fear of crime was the main card played. It was also played under Urban Renewal. It is being played again.
What the report omitted, and we overlooked, was the train station’s landmark status. The study did recognize the much less historic Wellmont Theater. The Wellmont holds neither local landmark status nor an individual State or Federal listing – all the designations we bestowed on the Lackawanna train station. An obvious, unexplainable omission by a very reputable, large, and established land use firm.
I originally supported this development plan because I was resigned to the outcome and lapsed into the “it’s a better strip mall than before” funk. Thankfully, someone I greatly respect and try to emulate challenged me to join those in trying to preserve one of our best examples of Montclair’s historic character. I am starting with this.
Frank Rubacky is a resident of Montclair.